The Simien Mountains are often referred to as ‘the roof of Africa’, with both admiration and passion. People are often surprised that there are such high mountains in Ethiopia. There are many animals here, from grass-eating monkeys to endemic wolves and antelopes. The sky is the territory of bearded vultures and other birds of prey. And you won’t just see one of them, there are many.
Thanks to its tumultuous origins the mountain range in Simien Mountains National Park has an unusual alpine landscape. The peaks are remarkably steep and crooked (often known as ‘pinnacles’). The way these mountains formed is special. It was, just like most mountains, pushed up many, many years ago by forces from within the earth. But here, it was a giant volcano. One of the biggest, ever.
It’s a volcano that has experienced erosion through the different ice ages. Or, to put it more accurately: it has been sculpted by the elements and completely changed shape. Water, in the form of ice and rain, has had an impact on this landscape for centuries, which is still evident today. And you can experience how it’s still affecting the region, as the weather here can get very wild.
It’s hard to get your head around how long the erosion process takes. But there are still peaks higher than 4.000 metres, such as the highest mountain in Ethiopia, the Ras Dashen (4.550 m), but also Mount Bwahit (4.437 m) and Mount Abba Yared (4.460 m). This process is also what created the Drakensbergen in South Africa, so it’s not a unique occurrence, but it’s very special.
Due to its location (close to the equator but at high altitude) flora and fauna have develop differently here. There are monkeys here, just like in many parts of Africa, but the gelada eats grass, the only monkey in the world that does so. They’re not shy around humans. You can also find the walia ibex here, which only lives here, and the Ethiopian wolf.
The Simien Mountains are relatively easy to explore on foot. And with a four-wheel-drive you can experience the vastness of the area. But you’ll notice that most visitors just sit down and take their time to take in the landscape. Just like the geladas, when they sit in the grass when the morning sun rises over the mountains.
It’s an amazing experience: geladas aren’t at all scared of people, so you can literally sit in the middle of a group of a hundred or more monkeys. They’ll make eye contact every now and then and walk straight past you. They’ll eat grass, groom each other and have a play together. Just sit down and spend a morning hanging out with them. It’s a unique experience, and you’ll come home with amazing photos.
The Simien Mountains are known because of their many walking tracks, especially those across ridges that take several days to complete, or those that lead through valleys. There is a small visitors centre in the town of Debarq, where you can learn all about the routes, guides and more. Experts say that the most dramatic landscapes are around Geech, in the heart of the park. It is compulsory to walk with a guide, who stays with you the whole time. And be prepared for rain, even in the dry season, as the weather can change quickly and heavy rainfall is quite common.
The walia ibex can only be found in certain areas of the park, but they’re quite easy to spot. The most impressive spot to see them is at the Sankaber lookout, a kind of hole in the rocks where you get a magnificent view across the mountains. You’re likely to see ibex amongst the rocks here, though they’re quite shy. Another good spot to see them is at Chenek, further along the route towards the east. Ask your guide to visit these locations, you shouldn’t miss them, especially Sankaber. Try and do this when the weather is clear, any low-hanging clouds will make the ibex impossible to see.
The Simien Mountains are absolutely full of birds of prey, you see them everywhere. For example, the bearded vulture, the golden eagle, and many other vultures, eagles, buzzards and falcons. Researchers have spotted more than fifty kinds of birds of prey here. If you visit the park you’re guaranteed to see them, usually soaring along the steep cliffs. They are known to use rising hot air, also known as a ‘thermal lift’, created by the morning sun. You should also keep an eye out for the interesting and remarkably large thick-billed raven, which only lives in this area.
The Simien NP has many different landscapes. When you get above 3.500 metres in altitude, you’ll see giant lobelias. This interesting plant gives the landscape an almost alien atmosphere. Take a good look around and enjoy this extraordinary décor. And if you’re lucky to catch a group of geladas, you can see how they sometimes snack on these plants between their usual meals of grass.
Towards the end of the wet season (early September), you’ll see many flowers in bloom here. These bring an extra splash of colour to these very green mountains. And just as with the fauna, you’ll find flora here that only grows in this specific region. Ask at the visitors centre in Debarq, where you have to check in whatever you do, which of these plants are the most common.